Conditions Deteriorate In Haiti as Military Boycotts Latest Talks

President Clinton refuses to rule out invasion of the island; UN set to consider next steps

THE courtyard of the charred St. Jean Bosco church in downtown Port-au-Prince today is filled with memories. It used to be filled with people. When exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was just Fr. Aristide, back in the 1980s, it was a Sunday ritual for people to climb on the crumbling cement wall to get a quick glimpse of their leader.

Back then, Aristide was the voice of the poor. When he became president in 1991, he became a voice for the two-thirds majority that voted for him. Today, although his voice is heard only from exile, he still speaks of and for the forgotten.

Ayiti, a 19-year-old street kid who talks of Aristide as Titid (``little Aristide''), used to live in the home that Aristide started for street children - Lafanmi Selavi, Family is Life.

Unlike most Aristide supporters, who if they speak of the president at all, do it quietly and behind closed doors, Ayiti proudly talks of his willingness to speak out about the man he considers his friend, his mentor, and his father.

``Aristide started this struggle back in 1986,'' Ayiti said, referring to the year the 29-year dictatorship ended. ``He introduced me to a lot of foreign journalists. They became my friends. Today, I am their eyes and ears on the streets.'' What the people on the street want, Ayiti explains, is for their president to return.

The same military that ousted Aristide 25 months ago has successfully prevented the president from returning. The United Nations holds the military authorities responsible for the failure of an accord signed July 3 by Army chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and Aristide that would have allowed Aristide to return Oct. 30.

Yesterday, President Clinton refused to rule out a possible US invasion of Haiti to restore Aristide. On NBC television's Meet the Press, the president said Aristide's supporters had not asked for such action, but `I don't think we should rule anything in or out.''

The UN Special Envoy to Haiti, Dante Caputo, had invited military and members of the Aristide government to meet last Friday. Forty minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin, Mr. Caputo received a two-page letter from General Cedras explaining why he would not attend the talks. The letter said the military high command objected to the UN imposing its agenda on the meeting. Cedras also objected to the UN supplying foreign security officers at the hotel where the meeting was scheduled to take place, rather than the Haitian Army.

`THIS was an opportunity lost to unlock the present impasse,'' Caputo said afterward. ``I am really sorry. This is not a failure for us, but for the Haitians who want this crisis to be solved as soon as possible. We want it to end as soon as possible, and we are not going to give up on our efforts.''

Caputo flew from Haiti to New York and Washington on Saturday to meet with UN and Organization of American States leaders on what steps should be taken.

Meanwhile, some 10,000 people could lose their jobs in the formal business sector. In the informal sector, which includes the vast majority of Haitians, the minimal hand-to-mouth existence has already become more difficult to sustain.

Inside the slum of Bel Aire, a neighborhood in the capital, a gaunt man holds out his painfully thin arms in distress.

``How can I provide for my kids,'' he asks, his nine children scattered around him, some showing various signs of malnutrition. ``I wake up in the morning with no hope of being able to put food in their mouths. We need to unblock the country in order to put some life back in to it.''

``If Aristide doesn't come back, we may as well bury ourselves, because we'll die,'' said an unemployed youth in yet another slum in the capital.

The embargo certainly hurts the Haitian poor, but there are attempts to target other sanctions against the military and their associates. The US Treasury Department has frozen assets of 41 people. Belgium and Switzerland recently agreed to do the same. There is also an unpublished list of people who have had their visas revoked.

Almost everyone agrees that whatever happens, it must happen soon. Progressives and conservatives alike agree that the situation is too desperate to continue.

But ``the worst thing we can do,'' says Ayiti, gazing at the remains of Aristide's church, burned by the Tontons Macoutes in 1988, ``is lose hope.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.